The Iliad and the Odyssey are two of the world's most famous poems but very little is known about their creator, 'Homer'.
Historian and writer Daisy Dunn goes in search of the poet of the Trojan War, exploring who Homer was and whether he ever actually existed.
Who was Homer?
The Greek hero Odysseus spent 10 long years striving to return home after the Trojan War. The stories of how he tricked the one-eyed Cyclops, evaded the flesh-eating Laestrygonians, and resisted the lure of the sirens as he struggled to reach Ithaca, are some of the most memorable in Homer's Odyssey. These stories may be fictional, but they form the heart of a poem that has reverberated down the centuries as a vessel of eternal truths.
For centuries, people have been trying to discover who was behind the timeless tales of the Odyssey and its predecessor, the Iliad. Homer, the name attached to the two poems, remains a mysterious figure. Was he a man? Was 'Homer' a group or lineage of poets? Was Homer a woman? The late-19th-century novelist Samuel Butler was convinced that the author of the Odyssey, at least, was female. For most people in antiquity, however, the two epics were the products of a single male mind.
In the second century AD, a satirical writer named Lucian imagined meeting the poet and interrogating him as to who he truly was. 'Homer' revealed to him that many people believed he came from the Aegean island of Chios, or from Smyrna or Colophon, on the west coast of what is now Turkey. While his words were to be taken lightly, scholars today consider it highly probable that the Homeric poems did indeed originate in these parts. Their Greek, while not one that was ever spoken, is overall more typical of the ancient dialects of the west coast of Turkey and the islands just off the coast than it is of those of mainland Greece.
Homer was associated with this part of the world from a very early date. Several writers described a talented poet of Chios, where a group of performing bards calling themselves the 'Homeridae' or 'children of Homer' had also established itself by the 6th century BC. References also exist in the early sources to Homer being conceived on the island of Ios or at Cyme and being born at Smyrna (modern-day Izmir).
Ancient writers had various ideas about what Homer looked like. The word 'Homeros' could mean 'hostage' in Greek, so some imagined that he was a captive. But 'Homeros' could also mean 'blind', and the image of a blind bard proved particularly compelling. One reason for this was that the Odyssey features a blind but immensely talented poet named Demodocus who recites his work before a royal court.
It is possible that the blindness of Homer was a myth invented to account for the fact that the Homeric poems originally evolved orally, before the development of writing in Greece, by being performed and passed down from bard to bard. Like the blind poet Demodocus in the Odyssey, a bard would have sung the poems before an audience, repeating passages and set phrases, such as 'godlike Odysseus', to satisfy the poetic metre.
The Iliad and Odyssey are conventionally dated to the late 8th or early 7th century BC. By this time the use of writing was becoming more widespread in Greece and it seems that the poems were also set down for the first time. But it's clear that the poems contain features preserved from the pre-writing age.
The story of the origins of the Trojan War, for example, in which Paris, prince of Troy, granted Aphrodite, goddess of love, the golden apple, is alluded to only briefly by Homer. It's taken for granted that anyone coming to the poems would already have known the details. The story of the judgement of Paris, in other words, is at least contemporary, if not older, than the poems themselves.
The poems may also preserve memories of an earlier, heroic age. The men of this time are presented as far stronger and mightier than those who came after them. Many scholars today believe that, if anything like the Trojan War ever happened, the most feasible historical background for the heroic age of the epics is the Late Bronze Age, about 400 years before the Iliad and Odyssey were first written down. Still today the monumental architecture of the city of Troy speaks of the highly developed civilisation that flourished in this period in Anatolia. It finds its counterpart in the grand palaces that Mycenaean Greeks built in the Peloponnese in the period between 1600–1200 BC. The precise reasons for why their civilisation collapsed in the 12th century BC are still a matter of scholarly debate.
The poems contain descriptions which evoke this glorious lost age. But they also contain details which derive from later times. There is a reference to the building of temples to the gods, for example, but the earliest Greek temples to the gods that we know of were constructed in the eighth century BC. It is partly accidental that the Homeric epics are such a chronological jumble – they preserve real memories and traces and phrases of the ancient past – and partly intentional. The war is set in the ancient past, so words and objects were chosen to characterise this earlier time.
So where might Homer fit into this? Going on the theory that there was a Homer, perhaps a poet who was born in Smyrna and worked on Chios, was he the original storyteller who came up with the plots of the epics, influenced perhaps by a conflict just north of where he came from, at Troy?
Or was Homer at the other end of the process? After being passed orally from generation to generation, the poems must have been refined when they were written down for the first time. So, should we think of Homer as a sort of editor, who shaped the inherited material into the complete poems?
Or is 'Homer' more a spirit than anything else, simply a name to give to a pair of remarkable poems which evolved and grew over hundreds of years and which can't be attributed to anyone in particular?
Everyone is entitled to their own view on this. My own is that it is not inconceivable that there was an original bard who came from the part of the world that we now know formed the setting of the poems. Perhaps he composed the epics in outline, building on stories passed down from his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, which later poets developed and perpetuated orally. Finally these poems were written down.
It's for each of us to decide whether to believe in one Homer or in many, in a blind bard or in a spirit that encapsulates the most astonishing process of preservation of stories told long ago. What is important is that we have the poems at all and continue to recognise their worth. It is uplifting to think that we can find as much joy in Homer's poetry today as our forebears did 3,000 years ago.
Daisy Dunn is the author of Homer: A Ladybird Expert Book (Penguin Random House) and Of Gods and Men: 100 Stories from Ancient Greece and Rome (Head of Zeus).
The BP exhibition Troy: myth and reality ran from 21 November 2019 to 8 March 2020.